Starbucks’ bid to conquer Italy has begun

First Milan, then the nation.
First Milan, then the nation.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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Starbucks has opened 28,000 stores worldwide in its 47-year history, becoming a ubiquitous brand in the US and many other markets. But it wasn’t until this year that the chain braved one of the most coffee-conscious countries in Europe: Italy.

The company debuted its first Italian location in Milan in September, a high-end Starbucks Reserve Roastery. It opened two more locations this week—one in Corso Garibaldi and another in Via Durini—and aims to break ground on 15 more each year.

That’s ambitious. While the Seattle-based chain has achieved near-ubiquity in other European countries, Italy’s intense coffee culture is a tougher barrier to break. Starbucks has committed to treading lightly, as described by Howard Schultz, the company’s former executive chairman, at a food conference in May.

“We are not coming here to teach Italians how to make coffee, we’re coming here with humility and respect, to show what we’ve learned,” Schultz said.

That approach to the Italian market is evident in Milan, where the company chose a historic post office in a busy city square for its location. Unlike a typical outlet, this Starbucks was designed in painstaking detail, decked out in marble with hand-chiseled palladiana flooring and a staircase leading to an “Arriviamo Bar” inspired by the Italian tradition of aperitivo (a drink before dinner to stimulate the appetite). The company has partnered with an Italian brand management firm and a real estate group for help with entering the market.

Whether that will be enough to overcome Italy’s coffee snob culture remains to be seen. After all, Starbucks brings to the table a distinctly American approach to coffee, with its different cup sizes (in Italy there’s one), it’s commitment to fast service (in Italy there’s more an expectation to sit and sip), and even an array of technicolor drinks, including the unicorn frozen latte.

For Starbucks, the goal in Italy is not to do coffee better than local cafes, but to find consumers interested in a different way of approaching coffee. That means the next few years in the country will be an experiment for the global giant, as it figures out just how many Italians can accept a fast-paced experience replete with paper cups.